|The Death of Pentheus.|
When I read Euripides' Cyclops last week I finished Euripides' surviving plays that we know were performed in his lifetime. The three remaining plays are Rheseus, the date that was written or performed is unknown (so too is the authorship: it might not be a Euripides play), and then the two that were performed posthumously: Iphigenia at Aulis and the Bacchae, both from around 405, a year after Euripides' death.
The Bacchae (Βάκχαι), also known as The Bacchantes, is a tragedy and is regarded by some as his final great work. The play begins with a prologue from Dionysus, the son of Zeus and the god of wine and religious ecstasy (among other things), whose Roman equivalent is Bacchus. He tells the audience of how his mother Semele was killed having been tricked by Hera, the wife of Zeus:
I am Dionysus, son of Zeus. My mother was
Semele, Cadmus' daughter. From her womb the fire
Of a lightning-flash delivered me.
He goes on to explain that no one believed his mother was impregnated by Zeus, and some, even her sister Agave, believe her death was a result of her blasphemy. And so he returns to Thebes to punish the family for lying about his mother and refusing to worship him. He arrives disguised having learned that Cadmus is no longer king; his grandson Pentheus was given the kingdom and it is Pentheus who prohibits the worship of Dionysus. On his arrival Dionysus drives Semele's sisters and the women of Thebes mad and sends them to Mount Cithaeron to worship and perform ritual rites. Pentheus, believing them to be drunk and disorderly, sends his soldiers to arrest the women and Dionysus, who he still believes is a stranger. Dionysus is indeed arrested and he begins to plot the murder of Pentheus, but first he avoids being bound, tortured and killed by tricking Pentheus, later telling the Chorus,
There too I mocked him; he thinks he bound me, whereas he never touched or caught hold of me, but fed himself on fancy. For at the stall, to which he brought me for a gaol, he found a bull, whose legs and hoofs he straightly tied, breathing out fury the while, the sweat trickling from his body, and he biting his lips; but I from near at hand sat calmly looking on.As he tries to convince Pentheus of his wrongs, the women, still mad, perform their insane rituals on the mountain and a cow herder narrowly avoids being killed by them when he crosses their path. Dionysus, seeing Pentheus' curiosity, offers to take him to the women, the maenads or the bacchants, and so Pentheus is concealed at the top of a tree. However, as Dionysus has planned, the women spot him - he is killed by his own mother Agaue who does not recognise him. When she realises she weeps, and Dionysus banishes her from Thebes. He then tells Cadmus and his wife Harmonia that they will be turned into snakes:
Now, Cadmus, hear what suffering Fate appoints for you.
You shall transmute your nature, and become a serpent.
Your wife Harmonia, whom her father Ares gave
To you, a mortal, likewise shall assume the nature
Of beasts, and live a snake. The oracle of Zeus
Foretells that you, at the head of a barbaric horde,
Shall with your wife drive forth a pair of heifers yoked,
And with your countless army destroy many cities;
But when they plunder Loxias' oracle, they shall find
A miserable homecoming. However, Ares shall
At last deliver both you and Harmonia,
And grant you immortal life among the blessed gods.
The Bacchae is a play on the rational and the irrational; the conflicts of the irrational mind and the rational social order. The irrational is of course represented by Dionysus and the rational Pentheus, however in this play Pentheus attempted to suppress the natural irrational and for that he lost his life. It is a warning, in short, for moderation. It's a great play, very short and yet remarkably disturbing.
The Plays of Euripides